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Neighborhood watch groups help local police

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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MARENGO – Sometime in December, police received a call reporting suspicious activity.

By happenstance, a Marengo police officer was stationed nearby and quickly arrived at the scene. It turned out that a group of juveniles were “going through cars,” attempting to find unlocked vehicles to burglarize, Marengo Police Chief Joseph Hallman said.

A neighborhood watch group volunteer made the call. The incident illustrated how neighborhood watch groups can be a vital community resource and play a significant role in preventing criminal activity, Hallman said.

“We can’t be at every place at once, so it allows us to do our jobs better,” he said.

Across the nation, there are at least 25,000 neighborhood watch groups, according to USAonWatch, a program founded by the National Sheriffs’ Association.

At the same time, reports of suspicious activity can turn out to be false.

Hallman recalls a time when neighbors reported an individual going in and out of a house that had been vacant for some time. The “suspicious” individual turned out to be the Realtor for the property.

Despite the false alarm, Hallman said he would rather see watchful residents follow their instincts and contact police.

“If something’s not right and they make a call, we’d rather have it be an embarrassing situation, a wrong call, than for them to not call when there’s a criminal activity going on,” he said.

Marengo police work alongside two active neighborhood watch groups in the Brookside Meadows and Maple Farms subdivisions.

The groups formed about a year ago, largely in response to a string of residential burglaries and thefts that hit Marengo and surrounding areas last summer.

“It galvanized enough people’s interest to at least start a dialogue to create these,” Hallman said. “We’re going to keep going, and generate some more [watch groups].”

The police department offers volunteer watch groups general guidelines and shares information about typical crimes in the area and other safety ideas. Neighborhood watch groups do not “promote vigilantism,” nor should they encourage confrontations, Hallman said.

Although it’s “hard to quantify” the groups’ criminal deterrent effect, volunteers are at least aware of their surroundings and their neighbors, Hallman said.

“It raises awareness, and you get to meet your neighbors, which we don’t quite do as much as we used to,” he said.

Neighborhood Watch/Neighbors Helping Neighbors has been in Huntley’s Sun City community for nearly 10 years.

The group started off as a communication resource for the retirement community, a “vehicle to Sun City residents to receive and send information,” said Ken Anderson, group president.

Sun City’s group is more comprehensive than an average neighborhood watch.

Communication regarding neighborhood safety gets passed from the Huntley Police Department to the group’s 31 coordinators, then down to 300 block captains and finally to 5,200 households.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors works to offer a range of information, including advice on how to install a wireless motion detection system and the best ways to use GPS devices, “along with readiness to look and see if there’s a suspicious individual or a suspicious car down the street,” Anderson said.

Watch groups aren’t limited to residential subdivisions.

The McHenry County Conservation District relies on volunteers as the extra ears and eyes for its 32 sites.

The district’s Safety Watch Education and Environmental Program (SWEEP) formed two years ago as a proactive initiative, said Wendy Kummerer, district communications manager.

The district is currently recruiting interested volunteers who typically visit sites once or twice a week. Generally, volunteers would walk or drive through a site to spot safety hazards.

“It could be anything from a dog being off leash to someone vandalizing the signs,” Kummerer said.

How to start a neighborhood watch group (from USAonWatch.org)

1. Recruit and organize as many neighbors as possible

2. Contact your local law enforcement agency and schedule a meeting

3. Discuss community concerns and develop an action plan

4. Hold regular meetings and train on relevant skills

5. Implement a phone tree and take action steps

Seeking volunteers

To get involved with the McHenry County Conservation District’s Safety Watch Education and Environmental Program (SWEEP), call the district office at 815-338-6223.

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